A protest convoy warning of a migrant “invasion” at the U.S.-Mexico border left Virginia on Monday and began making its way toward Texas, where a standoff continued between the state and federal governments over border authority and security.
The convoy was organized in part by Pete Chambers, a former Army lieutenant colonel who spoke about the movement this week on shows hosted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and ousted Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson.
Chambers and other organizers urged veterans and service members to join their cause, writing on their website that they were calling on “all active and retired law enforcement and military, veterans, mama bears, elected officials, business owners, ranchers, truckers, bikers, media and law abiding, freedom-loving Americans.”
Scotty Saks, an organizer of the convoy and host of “Sovereign Radio,” claimed that active Navy SEALs and Green Berets were planning to join.
The “Take Our Border Back” convoy said it aims to pressure the federal government by holding a rally Feb. 3 in Quemado, Texas, which lies just 20 miles north of Eagle Pass. On orders from state Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas National Guard rolled out concertina wire near Eagle Pass this month and prevented Border Patrol agents from accessing a popular migrant crossing.
In a 5-4 decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Border Patrol the authority to cut the concertina wire. The decision was narrow in scope, and while it says Texas can’t block federal authorities from the border, it doesn’t prevent the state from taking action. Twenty-five Republican governors issued a joint statement Thursday supporting Abbott, arguing that states have a right to self defense.
The tension between state and federal authorities comes amid record levels of unauthorized crossings at the border. Over the weekend, President Joe Biden claimed he would “shut down the border right now” if Congress authorized it.
In addition to the main event in Quemado, “Take Our Border Back” organizers are planning concurrent rallies in San Ysidro, California, and Yuma, Arizona.
As the Texas-bound convoy left from Virginia on Monday, organizers insisted their intent was to hold a peaceful protest to shed light on issues at the border and urge elected officials to take action to close it. However, the group was warning Tuesday of “infiltrators and provocateurs” who might be planning to disrupt their efforts, and extremism experts worried the situation could turn volatile.
“They’re calling for former law enforcement, former military, and so they’re looking for people who are tactically trained. That’s really not a necessity to be a protestor,” said Tom O’Connor, a retired FBI special agent who investigated domestic and international extremism for more than 20 years. “This could end very badly. Citizens clearly have a right to be angry over border issues and legally and peacefully protest their views ... but sending down potential vigilantes to get in between the already tense state and federal law enforcement is probably not a great idea.”
O’Connor and Freddy Cruz, a researcher with the Western States Center, said they were disturbed by the group’s rhetoric about the border. Organizers posted updates about the convoy to the video platform Rumble and X (formerly Twitter), in which they often referred to an “invasion” of migrants. In one video, Saks argued, “We can’t sit by and watch our borders and language and culture being destroyed.”
That type of language perpetuates the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which contends that lenient immigration policies are being designed to replace the power and culture of white people in the U.S., O’Connor and Cruz said. The theory has been tied to multiple mass shootings over the past several years, including the 2022 killing of 10 people in Buffalo, New York, and a shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 23 people dead in 2019.
“This type of language is very dangerous in animating people to take on a vigilante role,” Cruz said. “It gets more scary when there’s already this tension between state law enforcement and federal agents in Eagle Pass, where immigration has become like a lightening rod. People need to be very responsible about how they’re discussing this in a public space.”
During an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s streaming service Friday, Chambers argued that “mama bears, cops, veterans, truckers” were going to Texas only to “bring light” to the situation. U.S. Army and Texas National Guard spokespersons did not have enough information to verify Chambers’ service record, but in 2022 he testified in federal court that he became qualified as a Green Beret and later joined the Texas National Guard, serving until 2021.
“There is nothing nefarious about this,” Chambers said. “As a matter of fact, I am suggesting to them — and they know this — that this is a peaceful demonstration.”
While planning the convoy, organizers issued a 10-point list of safety rules for participants, including one that read, “Should bad actors try to create a problem, then do your best not to engage them!! Should you find yourself in a life-threatening situation because of such people, then by all means DEFEND yourself in accordance with state law.”
“The potential for something to happen or a one-off individual within that group is probably pretty good,” O’Connor said. “And even the group themselves has said that they are going to be looking out for people who are looking to cause problems. So, they’re thinking the same thing.”
It remained uncertain Tuesday how many people were involved in the convoy. According to WAVY, a local television station in Hampton Roads, Virginia, a few dozen vehicles met in a Virginia Beach parking lot before taking off for Texas on Monday. By Tuesday morning, organizers were attempting to curtail confusion about the route.
While it’s unknown how many people might join the rallies, the effort is well-funded. As of Tuesday afternoon, the group had raised nearly $141,000 in donations, which organizers said would be used for gas, permits, communication equipment and staging supplies at rally sites. Some anonymous donors gave between $1,000 and $3,000, their donations accompanied by messages such as, “Put on the armor of God” and “hold the line.”
The convoy stopped Monday night in Jacksonville, Florida, and it was expected to reach Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday. Organizers planned to arrive in Dripping Springs, Texas, on Wednesday, where they are expected to hold a “pep rally” Thursday before going to Quemado on Friday.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.